Finding the Sweet Spot in the MLB Season Proposal Chaos

Three weeks ago, Jeff Passan of ESPN reported a proposal for starting the 2020 season that involved all 30 teams playing in Arizona, using Chase Field, Cactus League parks, and other area facilities. It was the first thing resembling an actual plan to be connected to MLB decision-makers, and predictably, it was full of holes. After wide-ranging skepticism and a league-issued statement of, “Alright, let’s all just take it easy,” the Arizona plan ceded ground a few days later in favor of a new proposal that explored using teams’ spring training facilities in Arizona and Florida, completely re-arranging the divisions to do so. Right on schedule, another state was added to the mix last week, when CBS Sports reported that Texas was being discussed as a potential third site for games.

Finally, MLB’s newest reported plan was brought to light on Tuesday, and it is far and away the most ambitious yet. According to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, MLB is now discussing a proposal that would allow the season to open in late June or early July, with all 30 teams playing in their home stadiums, without fans in attendance. What would make this possible, MLB hopes, is a complete rebuilding of divisions, eliminating the AL/NL structure to construct three, 10-team geography-based divisions.

The details of this plan, and ones like it, are important in as much as they provide a window into MLB’s top officials’ thinking right now. But as we’ve seen in recent weeks, they can also change dramatically from one iteration to the next. That’s understandable, given how quickly conditions on the ground can change, and how much we still don’t know about how soon and how widely testing will be available, when states and municipalities will lift their stay-at-home orders, and when a vaccine will be developed and mass-produced. The more time MLB takes to finalize a plan, as Passan and The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal noted in columns earlier this week, the more information they’ll have at their disposal. No matter how many reports we read now, it will almost certainly be weeks before anything concrete is established by MLB and the MLBPA.

We can speculate a bit, however, based on what the past few reports have in common. So let’s build some divisions. First, it seems clear there is no intention of allowing fans at games — duh. Second, MLB and the MLBPA appear willing to completely alter the existing structure of leagues and divisions. Finally, they have incentives to spread teams into a few different locations, instead of just one or two. Doing so spreads out the burden of hotel, food, and testing accommodations, and in the case of moving up from a two-state, 15-team plan, it rids the league of the scheduling headache of having an odd number of teams. More locations also reduces the need for daytime games during the hottest months of the year in some of the hottest areas of the country.

The USA Today report represents the most extreme version of this, with each team getting its own home base. According to Nightengale, this version of the season would involve playing 100 to 110 games, and wouldn’t even necessarily require players to remain in isolation, though he acknowledged is is, “not known whether teams would have to open the season in Arizona, Florida and Texas for several weeks before everyone could return to their home stadiums.”

Per Nightengale, one possible realignment could involve divisions that look like this:

USA Today Division Alignment
East Central West
Mets Cubs Dodgers
Yankees White Sox Angels
Red Sox Brewers Giants
Nationals Cardinals Athletics
Orioles Royals Padres
Phillies Reds Diamondbacks
Pirates Indians Rockies
Blue Jays Twins Rangers
Rays Braves Astros
Marlins Tigers Mariners
SOURCE: Bob Nightengale – USA Today

It’s a suspect proposal, to say the least. While this realignment would significantly cut down on the travel that comes with a typical season, it isn’t as though it eliminates long road trips altogether. If your plan still necessitates a flight from Seattle to Houston, or Toronto to Miami — all without isolation measures being taken by players — you might as well not change the schedule at all.

If you look at these divisions as a way to align teams in a three-hub system, though, they start to make sense. Take the reported Florida/Texas/Arizona plan, for example. That proposal would give us three different time zones in which to play games, and for broadcasting purposes, it would make sense to try and align teams with their home fans as closely as possible. Texas, it seems, offers a few bonus points: Two major stadiums with retractable roofs, warm weather, a governor’s eagerness to host sporting events, and a few different minor league and independent park options within a manageable distance. This system would probably differ somewhat, however, from the alignment above, as MLB would likely put the two Texas teams in their home state, requiring two centrally-located teams to move back west.

FL/TX/AZ Division Alignment
Florida Texas Arizona
Braves Astros Diamondbacks
Red Sox Rangers Cubs
Orioles Royals Rockies
Marlins Twins Angels
Mets Cardinals Dodgers
Yankees White Sox Athletics
Phillies Reds Padres
Rays Indians Giants
Blue Jays Tigers Mariners
Nationals Pirates Brewers

Because the Cubs and Brewers typically share a division and each have Cactus League facilities, they get the bump here. By doing this, we ensure no team is playing more than two hours behind its home city, which will be important to MLB reaping as much TV viewership as possible. But if MLB is willing to eventually jump all the way to 30 playing locations, there’s no sense in us stopping at three. If we jump to four hubs, it leaves us with a question of where to put another location.

Unfortunately for us, just three stadiums north of Texas have roofs — Seattle, Milwaukee, and Toronto. Of those, Seattle offers the best access to nearby minor league parks, but those facilities are vulnerable to Washington’s rainy climate in a way that would be concerning to a schedule unfriendly to weather disruptions. If MLB wants to give itself as much insurance against rain as it can get, the best possible fourth location would likely be Los Angeles, especially Dodger Stadium, which has had just 17 rainouts since 1962. The comfort of knowing good weather is likely and the flexibility of having two major league ballparks would make L.A. an excellent spot for a fourth regular season hub, but it would come with a downside of putting half of baseball in Mountain or Pacific time.

FL/TX/AZ/LA Division Alignment
Florida Texas Arizona Los Angeles
Red Sox Astros Diamondbacks Dodgers
Yankees Rangers Reds Angels
Mets Phillies Indians Padres
Rays Tigers Brewers Giants
Marlins Twins White Sox Athletics
Orioles Cardinals Cubs Mariners
Blue Jays Nationals Rockies
Braves Pirates Royals

I tried to ensure that each team kept one of its traditional division rivals, while also trying to keep alive most geographical head-butting. This seems to work out alright — the Astros, Dodgers, and Yankees are all separated, but have at least one worthy challenger. The lone division without a super-team is Arizona, which is something of a free-for-all; you could convince me six of those teams could emerge victorious.

This is all fair, except they don’t have an even number of teams. Math defeated us here — you can’t divide 30 into four even groups, and one with six makes more sense than two with seven. Five locations, however, would give us a chance to make this nice and tidy again. We’d still want to find somewhere that offers us plenty of flexibility, so let’s try Washington D.C., where you once again have two closely neighboring major league parks, plus loads of minor league options nearby in Virginia and Maryland.

DC/FL/TX/AZ/LA Division Alignment
DC Florida Texas Arizona Los Angeles
Orioles Red Sox Astros Diamondbacks Dodgers
Nationals Yankees Rangers Tigers Angels
Reds Mets Brewers Indians Padres
Pirates Rays Royals Rockies Giants
Blue Jays Marlins White Sox Cardinals Athletics
Phillies Braves Twins Cubs Mariners

Some scrambling was done here, as typical spring homes took a backseat to preserving a few rivalries. There are a good number of those still here, with the exception of the Brewers, who I couldn’t really find the right home for in this arrangement. A few things still seem off, though. If we think we can utilize major and minor league parks just as well as spring facilities, I don’t see much point in keeping Arizona, with all of its life-consuming heat, over somewhere like, say, Chicago — which also has a retractable roof stadium in Milwaukee just 100 miles north, in addition to two more major league stadiums. It also bothers me a bit that we’ve assumed teams in host cities should be able to still play home games during a season in which most teams won’t play any. Let’s do one final shuffle — even divisions, preserved rivalries, no home games.

DC/FL/CHI/AZ/LA Division Alignment
DC Florida Chicago Texas Los Angeles
Indians Red Sox Astros Angels Cubs
Tigers Yankees Dodgers Mariners Cardinals
Rangers Rockies Reds Nationals Marlins
Athletics Padres Pirates Phillies Rays
Royals Mets Diamondbacks Blue Jays Brewers
Twins Braves Giants Orioles White Sox

Was this last one just an excuse to put the Astros and Dodgers together? I’ll never tell!

There are endless ways we could do this, which is why you won’t stop seeing reports of new ideas for how MLB’s 2020 season might look any time soon. It’s important to remember, however, that the question of whether or not Major League Baseball can use the lifting of stay-at-home orders as an excuse to open a season is a different one from whether it should. Medical experts, such as leading infectious disease authority Dr. Anthony Fauci, have warned that it is too early to begin re-opening the economy, stating that it could lead to “a rebound to get us right back in the same boat that we were in a few weeks ago.” Business entities such as MLB simply following the lead of a few governors who never seemed to take the pandemic seriously to begin with seems like a very bad idea, with potentially negative consequences both for public health as well as the near-term future of the sport itself.

That’s what makes this all feel a bit grim. The United States just set a new single-day high for confirmed cases on Friday. More than a 1,000 people have died from COVID-19 in this country every day since April 2, and though the curve has flattened in the country as a whole, testing is still not remotely where it needs to be to trust that the data isn’t leaving out large numbers of infections, like what has happened in Ohio. People in charge badly want baseball to be the thing that brings a sense of normalcy back to people’s lives. But until there is actual evidence that things are returning to normal, these plans make MLB sound a bit like a dog sipping coffee in a burning house.





Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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EFF51
Member
EFF51

The FL/AZ/TX/DC/LA plan offers the most promise, potentially to start season. Testing will not be an issue by June. Both the MLBPA and MLB baseball are desperate to make it work. Hoping for an announcement that spring training restarts by Memorial Day!

Kinsm
Member
Kinsm

Why won’t testing be an issue in June? Supply and Demand, the world needs q-tips, the world can’t manufacture enough of them.

EFF51
Member
EFF51

Testing capacity is increasing exponentially. By June it should not be a constraint to stop MLB from starting. For example in Miami Dade you can walk up and get tested with or without symptoms already.